Question: Can you learn from a robot?

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I had great fun last week, exploring what it is like to talk to a chatbot. It was Shelly Terrell who originally put me up to it, advising me when I was gathering ideas for a Spotlight Magazine article edited and coauthored by Jo Westcombe on ways English learners can use the Internet. I spent the better part of a day and evening experimenting, trying to figure out how chatbots make sense of my input, wondering whether or not our exchange sounded “human”, and thinking about whether I’d want students of English to use chatbots to develop their language skills. My findings will go online as a language exercise to supplement the article on Tuesday, and I don’t want to jump the gun here, but I’d like to share some of my impressions of the process with you.

What I’d like to know from you: Can you learn from a robot? Have you ever “interacted” with an inanimate system to improve technical and/or life skills? What sorts of skills do you think robots could teach? And would you enjoy using them in place of a “human” teacher?

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6 Responses

  1. Hi Anne, in your opinion: what is the difference between a robot and a interactive computersystem like the automatic call distribution (acd), which are used by telephone companies? Most of us have experiences with acds. And as far as I´m concerned, I wish, they would develop the acds into robots, at least for the reason to have fun!

  2. Hi Helburg,

    ACDs drive me totally nuts, especially when you get into the wrong loop because you pressed the wrong key or the voice recognition system didn’t work. They’re obviously a lot simpler systems than Artificial Intelligence robots, so you’re right, it might be fun to get some real AI on the other end.

    Some robots already on the market are very limited in their purpose. They can’t learn, nor can they be reprogrammed. I’m thinking of toy robots, or those vacuum cleaners, or the little dog robots that the elderly seem to like. Some robots can be upgraded through new programs and input.

    But Artificial Intelligence is something else, built in, a learning system that makes them more and more able to fulfill their purpose; like the ALICE chatbots I tested, which seem to be the cream of the crop. They learn to respond more and more appropriately, the more they interact with humans.

    Now, I’m just trying to imagine getting ALICE as she reacts right now on the phone instead of an ACD: I call an agency to cancel a contract. I start talking (or texting) to ALICE, and get some good answers and a lot of nonsequiturs. Very amusing, great entertainment … you’re absolutely right! But my main intererest would certainly be: can ALICE solve my problem? The system would be a little oversized in terms of IT complexity, and a bit low on reliability 😉

    Whether AI or just an ACD, systems simply don’t care whether I get what I want. Any failure in interaction ends up automatically being my problem. – What does this mean for other purposes of AI, like allowing people to learn, testing … ?

  3. I was very excited when the robot understood me! When the robot got something wrong then I made it a point to rephrase the question. Sometimes the responses were quite funny. I wonder how it is from a student perspective?

  4. Me, too, Shelly! I had a lot of fun and thought the robot was really incredibly witty. I think a student might think that the robot isn’t taking him or her seriously. I can’t show you the conversation yet 😉 but I noticed when I made grammar mistakes that the robot lost me. So when language learners use chatbots, they might not get as much out of it as they could.

    I tried to teach the chatbot a few set phrases. Didn’t quite work, some funny stuff. But you won’t believe it: When I went back online later, she remembered my computer, I’m sure, and quoted some of those set phrases back to me, even if she didn’t use them correctly. Chatbots take a while to get things logged and sorted, I guess.

    Please try out chatbot BELL, everyone, and tell me about your impressions:

  5. http://twitter.comAminhotep recommended his interesting blogpost: “Who Cares about English Anyways? How ESL training is far too focused on language.”

    You’ll find my comment there:

    Excerpt from my comment:
    “If we focus on improving communication skills over improving language skills per se, a chatbot or any non-human system poses a special and specific challenge: Not being human, not being willing to meet us on human (common) ground, a system challenges our ability to deal with problems that are complex and perplexing and need both imagination and tenacity or downright doggedness to get through. This is an essential part of becoming a better learner. I’m not sure it prepares us to deal with interpersonal communication challenges, but I’m giving it the benefit of a doubt…
    I’m quite interested in how the pragmatics of interpersonal face to face communication differ from online communication. Can chatbots help our students master online communication?”

    BTW, Tristan Verboven’s blog Class Struggle is really worth reading!

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